Sheriffs lacked legal authority for DUI sobriety checkpoint stops

If you are charged with a DUI, you may feel there is no room to avoid a conviction. However, depending on the circumstances of your stop and/or arrest and the actions of the officers, an arrest may well be challenged.

A situation which may seem, on its face, perfectly normal to an accused citizen might still be open to an unexpected challenge in a court of law. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court case of Commonwealth v. Marconi provided such an example, where an accused citizen decided to challenge the authority of sheriffs to set up temporary sobriety checkpoints.

Sheriffs set up a checkpoint

This case arose when the sheriffs' department of Forest and Warren Counties in Pennsylvania set up temporary sobriety checkpoints. The defendant was driving his car when he arrived at the checkpoint. According to the sheriffs, he allegedly showed signs of alcohol intoxication. The defendant was then subjected to a field sobriety test and chemical testing and was later arrested and charged with DUI and other offenses.

The defendant sought to suppress all evidence related to the sobriety checkpoint stop, arguing that the sheriffs lacked the authority under the law to make stops of all cars passing through, without some suspicion of DUI.

Specifically, the defendant alleged that sheriffs were not legally "police officers" for purposes of the applicable law under the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code, making the stop illegal. The case made went all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for a resolution of this matter.

Did sheriffs have authority to set up the checkpoint?

Initially, the Common Pleas Court agreed with the defendant, noting that a sheriff's common-law powers are limited, and an express statutory authority is necessary to support a sheriff's independent exercise of investigative powers, in distinction to arrest powers. The Common Pleas Court found the distinction between investigation and arrest especially important in relation to sobriety checkpoints, since a "suspicionless" stop impinges on sensitive constitutional rights. Stops without suspicion are inherently investigatory.

In reviewing the case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court noted that, under the Vehicle Code, "police officer" referred to anyone with a power to arrest. However, a literal reading of that definition would give any citizen enforcement authority, since even an individual may make a "citizen's arrest" under certain circumstances. The legislature could not have intended to give all citizens vehicle-related enforcement powers, so the law had to refer to something beyond the basic ability to arrest. Since the extent of a sheriff's power, based on prevailing case law, was limited to arrest authority, the Supreme Court thus concluded that sheriffs were not technically "police officers" under the Vehicle Code.

If the sheriffs lacked the authority to maintain a checkpoint without particularized suspicion, then the defendant's arrest could not have been valid. Under the law, the sheriffs were not "police officers" and were not invested with general police powers beyond the authority to arrest for in-presence breaches of the peace and felonies. Therefore, the sheriffs did not have the authority to independently establish the sobriety checkpoint and the evidence related to the defendant's DUI charge was suppressed.

Fighting for your rights

A DUI conviction may have severe consequences for your life, from fines and suspension of driving privileges to jail time. If you are arrested for DUI, you need an attorney who will explore every avenue of relief based on the circumstances of your case, whether through negotiation or fighting for your rights in court.